Novak, In re

Decision Date07 June 1991
Docket NumberNo. 90-8030,90-8030
Citation932 F.2d 1397
Parties, 20 Fed.R.Serv.3d 10 In re Roger NOVAK, Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

David R. Smith, Wayne L. Durden, Savannah, Ga., for appellant.

Hinton R. Pierce, U.S. Atty., William H. McAbee, II, Miriam Nabors Banks, Savannah, Ga., for U.S.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.

Before TJOFLAT, Chief Judge, FAY, Circuit Judge, and HOFFMAN *, Senior District Judge.

TJOFLAT, Chief Judge:

Roger Novak appeals his conviction for criminal contempt. Novak, an employee of the insurer for the defendants to a legal malpractice suit, willfully failed to comply with a district court's order directing him to appear before the court at a pretrial conference to facilitate settlement discussions. Although we conclude that the district court lacked the authority to issue that order, we nevertheless affirm Novak's conviction for criminal contempt.

I.

The facts underlying this dispute are relatively simple. The appellant, Roger Novak, is a senior claim analyst for Continental Casualty Company (CNA). Novak resides in Naperville, Illinois and is employed at CNA's home office in Chicago.

In May 1989, Vickie Roberts filed a legal malpractice suit against David Hammock and his law firm in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia; jurisdiction was based on diversity of citizenship. The defendants were insured by CNA. Under the terms of the policy, CNA hired local counsel, Clay Ratterree, to defend the suit on the defendant's behalf. CNA supervised Ratterree's performance from its Atlanta branch office. Ratterree, although authorized to enter into settlement negotiations, had no power to settle the case without CNA's express approval.

The trial of the case was scheduled for Monday, November 13, 1989 in Savannah, Georgia. On Thursday, November 8, the district judge conducted a pretrial conference; the following day he met with counsel for a settlement conference. At this conference, Ratterree, pursuant to CNA's instructions, offered the plaintiff $150,000 to settle the case. Plaintiff's counsel rejected the offer, stating that his client needed more money. Ratterree, in response, said that he had to take the matter up with CNA in Atlanta. At this point, the district court instructed Ratterree to find out who in CNA had full settlement authority for the case. Ratterree contacted the case manager in Atlanta, who told him that Novak had the last word on settlement for the case, and Ratterree gave this information to the district court. The court then issued an order directing Novak to appear before it in Savannah on November 13 for a settlement conference. 1 The court sent a copy of the order to Novak in Chicago by facsimile transmission. The court also instructed Ratterree to inform Novak of the order; Ratterree transmitted a copy of the order to Novak and twice informed him of the order by telephone.

During one of these calls, Novak told Ratterree that CNA would make a good faith effort to settle the case and he authorized Ratterree to offer the plaintiff $225,000, indicating that this would be CNA's highest offer. Apparently believing that this would satisfy his obligation under the November 9 order, Novak chose not to appear before the district court on November 13. On November 14 the court issued an order directing Novak to appear before it in Savannah on November 22, 1989 to show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court; the United States Marshal for the Northern District of Illinois served this order personally on Novak. 2

Novak appeared as ordered and, in a "special appearance," challenged the district court's jurisdiction over his person. According to Novak, the court lacked the authority to issue the November 9 order because he had insufficient "minimum contacts" with the Southern District of Georgia to satisfy the requirement of due process of law and to subject him to the court's jurisdiction. Thus, Novak concluded, the court's order was void, and he was entitled to disobey it with impunity. 3

The court rejected these contentions. First, the court held that its authority to issue the November 9 order derived from its inherent power to facilitate settlement in cases properly before it, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 16. 4 Second, the court observed that it clearly had jurisdiction over CNA, Novak's employer. The court reasoned that it simply had instructed CNA to designate a representative with full settlement authority, which CNA did through Ratterree; the court then ordered that representative to appear before it. Therefore, the court rebuffed Novak's jurisdictional challenge and held him in criminal contempt, fining him $500.

Novak appeals, contesting the district court's authority to order him to appear at the settlement conference. He contends that since the order was directed to him personally, the only relevant question is whether the court had jurisdiction over his person; the district court erred in concentrating on his employer's contacts with the forum. Viewed in this light, Novak argues, it is clear that the court had no authority to issue the order in question. Novak concludes that because the court's order was beyond its jurisdictional power, the order is void. Accordingly, he had no obligation to obey the order, and he could disregard it with impunity.

The Government responds that the district court's authority to issue the order in question derives from its inherent power to fulfill the objectives of Fed.R.Civ.P. 16 and was not dependent on its jurisdiction over Novak, CNA, or the parties to the underlying action. According to the Government, the district court's inherent power to require a representative of a party's insurer to attend a settlement conference gave the court the power to compel Novak's attendance as the designated representative of CNA.

Alternatively, the Government argues that the district court did have personal jurisdiction over Novak. CNA's Atlanta office had kept him posted as to the progress of the case and he had communicated Ratterree's settlement authority by telephone. The Government contends that this involvement constituted sufficient contacts to subject Novak to the district court's jurisdiction and Novak reasonably should have anticipated being haled into court in that forum; thus, the district court, in exercising jurisdiction over Novak, did not deny him due process of law.

We conclude that the district court properly held Novak in criminal contempt. Generally, an individual must comply with a court's order, regardless of its validity, until it is reversed. Novak disregarded the district court's order based on his own evaluation of its correctness; while we agree with Novak, for reasons different from his, that the underlying order in this case was invalid, we will not allow him to ignore the order with impunity. Of course, there are a few exceptions to the rule that an individual must comply with an invalid court order. None of those exceptions, however, apply in this case. Accordingly, we affirm Novak's conviction for criminal contempt.

II.

It is well established that an order duly issued by a court having subject-matter jurisdiction over a case or controversy before it, and personal jurisdiction over the parties to that case or controversy, must be obeyed, regardless of the ultimate validity of the order. Maness v. Meyers, 419 U.S. 449, 459, 95 S.Ct. 584, 591, 42 L.Ed.2d 574 (1975); United States v. United Mine Workers, 330 U.S. 258, 293, 67 S.Ct. 677, 696, 91 L.Ed. 884 (1947); United States v. Dickinson, 465 F.2d 496, 509 (5th Cir.1972). 5 Disobedience of an invalid court order may be punished as criminal contempt. 6 As Chief Judge John Brown explained: "People simply cannot have the luxury of knowing that they have a right to contest the correctness of the judge's order in deciding whether to willfully disobey it.... Court orders have to be obeyed until they are reversed or set aside in an orderly fashion." Dickinson, 465 F.2d at 509 (quoting Southern Ry. v. Lanham, 408 F.2d 348, 350 (5th Cir.1969) (Brown, C.J., dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc)).

This rule, known as the collateral bar rule, is vividly illustrated by the case of Walker v. City of Birmingham, 388 U.S. 307, 87 S.Ct. 1824, 18 L.Ed.2d 1210 (1967). In Walker, an Alabama trial court, on motion by city officials, enjoined a group of leading civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from marching through Birmingham during the forthcoming Easter weekend to protest against racial discrimination; the injunction was simply a judicial paraphrase of an existing municipal ordinance. Ignoring the order, the demonstrators marched as planned, without having taken any judicial steps to dissolve or overturn the injunction. As a result of their knowing disregard of the injunction, the court convicted the demonstrators of criminal contempt and sentenced them to five days in jail, plus a $50 fine. Although the Supreme Court recognized that the municipal ordinance on which the injunction was based raised substantial "constitutional issues," id. at 316, 87 S.Ct. at 1830, the Court nevertheless upheld the contempt convictions. Said the Court:

The rule of law that Alabama followed in this case reflects a belief that in the fair administration of justice no man can be judge in his own case, however exalted his station, however righteous his motives, and irrespective of his race, color, politics, or religion.... [R]espect for judicial process is a small price to pay for the civilizing hand of law, which alone can give abiding meaning to constitutional freedom.

Id. at 320-21, 87 S.Ct. at 1832 (footnote omitted). Thus, "even in a case where the equities cut so dramatically in favor of the accused contemnors, the Supreme Court came down on the side of the orderly rule of law." In re Establishment Inspection of Hern Iron...

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